The ongoing saga of short-term rentals in New York City has been boosted in part by the legalization of the industry in San Francisco this month. A coalition in New York has started to counter recent Airbnb ads promoting the service.
The group, ShareBetter, is made up of hotel owners, tenant rights groups and several state politicians representing city neighborhoods (full listing here). The argument is that Airbnb is causing rents to rise by eliminating affordable housing stock in favor of short-term rentals, and that tenants shouldn't be subjected to the rising costs associated with this alleged impact.
ShareBetter recently released the most aggressive tool in its visible fight against short-term rentals in New York: a "public safety tool" that allows guests to uncover sex offenders and building code violations nearby a potential short-term rentals. By exposing potential threats, the thinking is that guests will think twice about using the service.
In fact, the tool can be used for investigating all kinds of hazards in New York City - for residents, tourists and hotel guests as well. There are at least 1,635 registered sex offenders in Lower Manhattan alone, with the majority of them reported as homeless. In addition, there are building code violations on New York hospitality businesses reported via the interface as well.
It doesn't matter where the short-term rental or hotel is, there are hundreds of homeless convicted rapists, predators and sexual offenders peppered about - these statistics are alarmist red herrings and should be called out as such given this targeted context of "the dangers of Airbnb."
In a comment to Mashable regarding the success of the tool, a ShareBetter spokesperson said that over 200,000 people tried to access it:
The overwhelming response far surpassed what we anticipated. This clearly shows that people are interested in using the web tool to learn more about the safety risks of Airbnb.
This PR spin is part of the what makes this whole political mess so exhausting. It's hard to believe that 200,000 people are solely concerned about studying a map to learn about safety risks of Airbnb. Even the URL of the Mashable article is "Airbnb dangers," and only speaks about this multi-purpose citywide map without mention of other real rental dangers such as fire, accidents and other harm.
The map itself doesn't educate the user about Airbnb safety - however, it does inform the user that New York still has some violent sex offenders wandering the streets without physical addresses, and that many buildings have issues with fire door access and overall safety for users.
The backfire here is that this has nothing to do with short-term rentals and everything to do with the structure of New York City itself.
Video parody underscores similarities of hotels and short-term rentals
ShareBetter hit back after Airbnb released a popular video called "Views" which showcased some special Airbnb listings. The organization released a parody video that paints a few specific examples as a broad brush norm.
The dueling video ads are played below, showing Airbnb's promotional campaign and ShareBetter's response.
Rather than believing that all Airbnb listings are disgusting hovels of filth, any semi-literate viewer would grasp that such guest-specific accusations are leveled regularly at hotels as well.
The reality here is that a cursory glance at TripAdvisor hotel reviews comes up with very similar comments about dirty rooms and under-construction hotels. Hotel photos can be equally misleading - often taken all at once and years before the guest's actual stay, at freshest stage of post-renovation; many of these charges can also be levelled at hotels with misleading marketing practices.
ShareBetter points to Airbnb horror stories as a reason to regulate the industry.
For example, the well-publicized incident of a rental being turned into a temporary brothel. Yet, hotels have been havens for prostitutes almost since the birth of the profession (pun intended). Search "prostitute hotel" on TripAdvisor, and enjoy hundreds of nuggets such as this one, this one, and this one. Where's the manufactured outrage here to ban all hotels?
Interestingly, the discussion of the causal relationship between Airbnb and skyrocketing rents in New York City doesn't mention the onslaught of absentee oligarch non-residents, the city's historic income inequality, or the focus on ultra-luxe premium housing as a contributing factor to rising rents.
The argument here is that the 25,000 listings in New York City are the root cause of expensive rent among the city's 3 million households:
Far from being a harmless service where New York City residents can share their homes with guests to the City, Airbnb enables New York City tenants to break the law and potentially violate their leases, it exacerbates the affordable housing crisis in our neighborhoods, and it poses serious public safety concerns for Airbnb guests, hosts and their neighbors.
Yet, when those listings provide the ability for tenants to maintain footholds in an increasingly unaffordable city for anyone but the ultra-wealthy, the ShareBetter argument falls flat, as those challenged by the new economics of New York City can attest. One of the organization's supporters sounds oppressively insensitive to the needs of those middle-to-lower income tenants feeling pressured to rent out their homes:
On the other hand, the rise of the income property manager fueled by demand for short-term rentals has without a doubt encouraged many landlords (both current and aspiring) to convert (or seek out) rental properties specifically targeted to Airbnb, HomeAway and the industry ilk. This removes housing stock from the residential pool, and increases rent overall as the landlord enjoys higher income provided by the newly-minted short-term rental.
Airbnb has also not been the most forthcoming, and oftentimes seems to steamroll over neighborhood concerns without agreeing to take responsibility for the impact of its service on neighbors.
The short-term rental brokers must be more sensitive when listening to neighbors - they are stakeholders as well - and then all parties must work towards compromise. Neither side will win every concession, but each party has a right to be heard - hosts, guests and citizens alike.
There are no clean answers here, as the reality is complex, nuanced and interconnected in ways that simplistic sound bites never address. But there is a lot at stake for the travel industry, with deeply-rooted interests on both sides fighting for their slice of pie.
Airbnb wants legalization, while the hotel groups, lobbyists and related political actors want to maintain the status quo that gives leaves tenants to residential areas and tourists to hotel zones. It seems that the traveler would lost out here, with fewer options to engage in the most popular way of travel: to experience local life from a uniquely local perspective.
Regardless of who wins, the results are already trickling down to all segments of the travel industry. Rental brokers should be more sensitive to the communities in which the rentals operate and hotels must continue to analyze why consumers are flocking to the Airbnb-style services - and figure out how to win them back with a product-first, customer-oriented approach.
NB: Author is both a frequent Airbnb user and hotel guest.